Emily Thornberry's resignation shows a rattled Labour leadership. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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It's ironic that Thornberry's now the symbol of out-of-touch Labour – and it's Labour's fault

Emily Thornberry's resignation cements divisions in the Labour party already highlighted by this by-election battle.

The shadow attorney general, who resigned tonight having tweeted a picture of a house in Strood adorned with three St George’s flags, has become over the course of an evening a symbol of out-of-touch Labour.

Emily Thornberry is a London MP, and not just any old London – Islington. An area of north London often lampooned by journalists and politicians, including Labour MPs, for being home to an out-of-touch metropolitan liberal elite. All it took was this fact, and that she tweeted a picture of a white van parked outside a house bearing some England flags, for Labour to become the centre of a by-election story in which the Tories should be the real losers.

However, although pictures of her smart house in the constituency are now flying around the internet, she is not a symbol of out-of-touch Labour. She was raised by her mother on a council estate outside Guildford beyond the outskirts of London. She became a human rights lawyer, and since entering parliament in 2005 has mainly worked – conscientiously by many accounts – on justice matters, being made shadow attorney general in 2011.

It is an irony that this MP is being lambasted as a classic out-of-touch Labourite, for an act she could no way have known would be blown up like this. It is a symptom of problems at the heart of her party.

There are a number of factors working against Thornberry. First, her tweet was inadvisable, though as many have pointed out, it could have been interpreted in any number of ways. Second was her confused defence, which swerved from saying people were being “prejudiced” towards Islington, to claiming she thought it was the number of flags that was remarkable, not what the flags represented. She eventually apologised on Twitter for any offence she’d caused.

But third, and the worst, was the reaction of the Labour leadership, which blew up this minor Twitter scuffle being boisterously explored by journalists awaiting the by-election result into a resignation.

Briefings were hastily poured out that Ed Miliband was furious and had told her so, and then the resignation came – another sign of how rattled the leadership is about the heart of its party. As I wrote earlier, there are widening gulfs between the national party and its activists, and those with “Blue Labour” versus post-New Labour credentials. These divisions have been highlighted by this by-election battle, and Thornberry’s resignation sets them in cement.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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